[EDITOR'S NOTE: In order to achieve the widest possible range of coverage, the morning feature will occasionally replace the standard "List" format with an in-depth reported article on a topic relevant to our interests. Let me know in comments below if you consider this a positive or negative development -LYT]
Many people have called Harold P. Warren's Manos: The Hands of Fate the worst movie ever made. I must respectfully contradict those people, Manos cannot be the worst movie in a world in which Barry J. Gillis' 1989 Things exists. Odds are it's not even the worst American movie ever made, though the need for a snappy headline once resulted in me describing Manos as such. (And those words keep coming back to haunt me.)
The peculiarly-paced story of a deeply uncharismatic man (director Warren) taking his wife Margaret (Diane Mahree) and daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) on a vacation that runs afoul of a cult led by the plurally-married Master (Tom Neyman) and his jittery, big-kneed manservant Torgo (John Reynolds), Manos' reputation comes in no small part from being featured on what is considered the funniest and best episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. (I also must respectfully disagree with on both counts, because for as great as the Manos episode is, for me it runs a very close second to Monster a-Go-Go.) Were it not for that reputation, a man named Ben Solovey might not have decided to restore Manos to the 2k digital glory it never came close to having in the first place. But Solovey did restore Manos, coming out soon on DVD and Blu-ray from Synapse Films. I talked to him about the ups and downs of such a perfectly strange project.
As he tells it in a post entitled "Why 'Manos'?" on the restoration's website and over email with me, Solovey acquired a carload of 16mm and 35mm film prints that had previously belonged to the long-defunct Emerson Film Enterprises. Among them was a theatrical release print of Manos: The Hands of Fate, slightly faded but in decent enough shape, all things considered. Another was set of A/B rolls - that is, the actual 16mm Ektachrome reversal film that passed through Harold Warren's Bell & Howell camera, surely the most historically significant Bell & Howell this side of Abraham Zapruder's - covering about half of the film's running time. But the real find was the workprint, which changed everything.
The trick about the cost-efficient on 16mm Ektachrome reversal film on which Manos was shot is that there was never a negative: when the film from the camera was developed, what resulted was the actual picture, not a negative thereof. That developed film was then duplicated for editing, eventually being assembled into the workprint that Solovey now possessed. It's a minor miracle that the workprint survived not only standard disposal, but also the 1994 Northridge Earthquake which (according to Emersons) destroyed all the other extant Manos materials. And it's pretty, too, thanks to the inherent hardiness of Ektachrome material.
The few audiences that saw Manos at the time certainly didn't get to see anything as spiffy as the workprint. Once editing was complete, a 35mm blowup was made - making the picture twice as grainy - and prints for theaters were copied from that blowup. Not a single fuck was given about framing or color by the people who made those prints, resulting in a badly cropped picture with much of the color drained out. When the film hit VHS decades later, it was based on the horrible theatrical prints, and of course VHS is not exactly an archival format, so it made the picture look that much worse.
Here's how it's been looking from the VHS dupes, minus the MST3k silhouettes:
...and here's how it appeared on the (unrestored) workprint:
And the final restored version, from an advance DVD supplied to me by Mr. Solovey:
There was still plenty of ick to clean from the workprint in order to allow the ick of the set to shine though.
I need to stress that the above500px screenshots are in not truly representative of the actual resolution of Mr. Solovey's 2k restoration; visit the Manos in HD site to them in their proper 2040x1491 size. (Be sure to click on the image once you get there to get to savor every grain.)